Letter to a starting tester

Note: this blog post has been updated since it was first published to reflect recent changes and challenges testers face.

As our profession develops alongside the various technological advances, it can be easy to lose sight of how we got here in the first place and what our job is really about (hint: it’s not finding bugs).

A common concern that keeps echoing “in the halls” is that testers could eventually become obsolete with the increased implementation of automated QA, Agile practices and so on.  This can be a deterring factor for less experienced testers wondering if they are on a “smart” career path, or whether they should shift to something else before it’s too late. It can be an even more daunting thought for QA “veterans” who are already deep in the field.

The truth is, that the “death of testing” is not looming in the near future however, as everything else, our profession has and always will be dynamic. The way to “survive” is to adapt and stay relevant while adhering to some core truths you need to keep telling yourself.

Give yourself some good advice

While working on the current State of Testing survey and report a few months ago, and as part of this project I talked to a large number of testers and testing teams worldwide

In some of these talks I explained how 20 years ago I started working as an accidental testers, how I tried to escape from testing during the first 3 or 4 years of my career, and how somewhere along the road and without really noticing I found my testing vocation.

After one of these chats I realized that when I was beginning my work as a rookie tester I really had the need for a mentor to help me get started on this journey.  There were many times when I would have appreciated professional guidance and advice, especially during some of my moments of doubt.

And so, I decided to write here the email I would have sent to myself back when I started testing to help me cope with some of the main challenges ahead.

Maybe this email is only cheap therapy for myself, but there is also a chance that it may help some of the testers who are only now starting their professional endeavors.

An email to Joel, a starting tester, back in 1998

Dear Joel,

I wanted to send you this mail to help you during some of the difficult times and the challenges that you will encounter as you start your professional career as a tester.

What I will tell you may sound lame and trivial at times, but these are the things you will need to hear (and do) to cope with a number situations that await you in your coming career.

No one really knows what you need to do better than you do, in the end you will need to figure it out on your own.

Many times you will feel Letter to a starting tester- maze that you don’t understand what’s expected from you as a tester.

People want you to find the bugs and test the product, but they don’t have time to explain what the product really does and how, they will not be open to criticism, they will also hate it when you bring them bad news, and on top of everything else they also expect you to complete all your work within a couple of minutes…

Even though you did not go through any special training, you are suddenly the expert in testing, and sometimes this new responsibility will weigh too much in your shoulders.

As strange as it sounds, no one in your team knows how to do your work better than you do (this will be especially true in the start-up companies where you will work at the beginning of your career).  It will be up to you to learn and figure out your job, and to define your tasks in the best way you can with the resources at your disposal.

Don’t count on the knowledge of others in your team to rescue you from your responsibility…

There are other testers out there that you can talk too, look for them and share your knowledge and questions.

You are not alone!

Even if you are the only tester in your company, there are still other companies near by where you will find other testers.

One of the biggest and most important things you will do is to lose your “public embarrassment” and reach out to other testers, to talk with them about your questions, challenges and dilemmas!

You will be amazed about how similar your issues are, and how much you can learn by simply talking to them and coming up with shared ideas on how to solve your professional predicaments.

This will help you learn that asking questions is not a sign of being weak or dumb, but a sign of being professionally confident and smart…

Testing is as much about learning and asking questions, as it is about pressing buttons and reporting bugs.

Hand-in-hand with the last point, you should also learn to ask the people on your team questions about your product, this will help you become a better tester.

Many times you’ll see that a developer comes to you to explain a new feature or a change, and after he/she is done explaining (or at least after they think they are done explaining) you have more questions than the ones you started with.   When this happens don’t be ashamed to ask more questions and to request this person to explain the point from a different angle or using different examples.

A number of (nice) developers may forget that you are not aware of all the technical details, or they will start their explanations based on other assumptions that are not known to you, or they are simply bad communicators and so explain stuff in the worst possible way…

This is just the way it is, and you don’t need to be afraid to keep asking until things are clear enough for you to do your work. It is as much their jobs to make sure you understand how to test as it is to write the code correctly.

Whenever you get a feeling that something is not right, don’t keep quiet!  Understand what bothers you and communicate this to the team.

At times you will get a feeling that something is not right with your product or your process, and it will be your instinct to think that it is you who made a mistake during your tests.

This will surely be the case many times, but once you have re-checked your assumptions and your procedures, and if you still have that feeling of something not being right make sure to communicate this to others.

Stand your ground when you think you are right.

Sometimes it may be a matter of interpretation, you think that the feature should behave “this way” but the developer thinks that it should behave “that way”.

When this happens go to someone else who will help you make the correct choice.  Try someone who knows the customer and will be able to provide feedback based on their knowledge of how the users work.

The same goes for the times when you see your project is going to be delayed, but you see people behaving like everything was normal and OK.

If you see that features are slipping, and that the quality of the deliverables is below the status you expected them to be at this time make sure to raise a flag and wave it for the whole team to see it.

After all it is your job to ensure the quality of the process and not only of the product under test!

You are not the gatekeeper of your product by brute force!

Having said all these, it is not your job to stop the bugs (or the versions containing them) from walking out the door.

Your job is to provide visibility into the status of your product and your project, and give everyone on the team the information they need to make their decisions.

After you have given everyone the correct information they will need to make the choice whether to release the product into the field or not.  You may be part of this team making the decision, but your voice will never be the only one that counts!

Remember that you may not have all the information related to marketing, sales, competitors, or a range of other factors that are usually involved in the process of deciding whether to release a version to the field or not.

Have fun…

Testing should not be 100% serious all the time!

It is OK to have fun and to joke around with the people in your company, just remember that there are times for joking and there are times for keeping serious.

And one last thing!

When you are working in the Silicon Valley around 1999, look for a company called Google, and ask them if they need a good tester.  Even if they pay you only in stock take the job…  It will be worth it 😉

What professional advice would you give your “younger self”? I welcome you to share your thoughts.


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17 Responses to Letter to a starting tester

  1. Emad February 23, 2015 at 3:12 pm #

    It really gives me pleasure to be the first one who thank you 🙂

  2. Graeme February 23, 2015 at 7:57 pm #

    This is great! I’ve actually been thinking about how I can give out some advice to testers just starting their career, but without trying to sound like the all-knowing voice. You’ve captured a perfect way to do that, and I agree with basically all your points.

    You mentioned at the top of your article about the need for a mentor, but didn’t include it in your letter of advice. Having a good mentor was hands-down one of the best things I did for my testing career!

  3. joelmonte February 24, 2015 at 9:18 am #

    Thanks Graeme,

    I think you are right. I think that looking for a mentor is a high priority, and I missed that one 🙂

    Having said that, I believe that it would be more realistic if we (as experienced testers) would actually go and look for those people starting their careers in our companies and offer them the mentorship they are going to be afraid or ashamed to ask for…

  4. joelmonte February 24, 2015 at 9:18 am #

    Thanks 🙂

  5. Mirjana Kolarov February 25, 2015 at 9:45 am #

    “There are other testers out there that you can talk too, look for them and share your knowledge and questions.”
    This is the one I would use for myself. Definitely would have been much more eye opening if I started reading blogs, and writing questions on LinkedIn or somewhere similar. Since I discovered that by reading and sharing you can learn about a whole different world, I became much better at what I do, and I enjoy it ever since (I also got into testing by accident, before that I though I’m going to be a developer. And same as you, I wanted to get out of the testing in a first year or so).

  6. John Cartlon February 26, 2015 at 8:19 am #

    Beginners always need right mentoring to carve their skills.
    Am sure they would get some idea how to project their skills through this
    article. Impressed Joel!
    We are trying to impart same. Check http://ow.ly/JFh8f

  7. joelmonte February 26, 2015 at 8:46 am #

    Thanks John!
    I think that one of the challenge here is realizing that you have much to gain by seeking more knowledge from other sources, such as mentoring or even from sharing and seeking experiences from your peers.

  8. joelmonte February 26, 2015 at 8:49 am #

    You’d be surprised how many people share (more or less) the same story on how they came into testing. Sometimes it even makes you wonder…
    BTW, I agree with you, one of the biggest gains from sharing your own experience is the amount of knowledge you get from the other people who start interacting with you. And so, my general advice is to reach out using any media (linkedin, twitter, fb, g+, etc) and simply ask and share, the rest will come almost automatically.

  9. Kobi Halperin March 2, 2015 at 1:53 pm #

    Thanks Joel for yet another interesting article,
    I would add:
    1. When you ask the team about the product, after getting an explanation from one, go ahead and ask another one (I call it “Divide and Conquer”), compare the 2, move to another one, than come with your new understanding to 1st person…
    2. The only item better than having a mentor, is becoming a mentor – I found out that even people who feel they don’t have enough knowledge on the product or working methodologies – should already start trying to mentor newer newcomers.
    Having to explain to others is a form of “practice” for the theoretical knowledge you just gained – forcing you to process is and by that – assimilate the knowledge.

    @halperinko – Kobi Halperin

  10. jtmcmurdy March 6, 2015 at 1:26 am #

    Interesting article Joel.

    I have to admit that after many years as a QA Professional, the feeling of not knowing what is expected of me persists. I’ve had to transition from being a manual tester to a front-end, back-end qa automation tester. The worst is when you get newly hired on as a “Senior” tester and they just assume certain things about your skills and abilities without telling you what they expect. Still working for them, so I guess I’m doing OK 😉


    John Murdock

  11. joelmonte March 6, 2015 at 4:50 pm #

    Hi John,

    It is so true! When you get hired as a Senior people do expect from you to come and “fix it”, and then the interesting part begins 🙂

    BTW, after a couple of these situations I finally started these Senior or Consulting jobs by talking to as many stakeholders as I could and asking them a simple question: “where does it hurt?”, and based on their answers I got a nice map of what was really the best way of adding my value as a testing professional. Maybe this can work for you during the next time you are brought on-board in this situation.

    Good luck!


  12. Alex March 13, 2015 at 11:35 pm #

    Thank you Joel, good article
    I would have sent to myself back when I switched to testing role. 5 years ago

  13. Richard October 8, 2015 at 9:49 am #

    Thanks for sharing. One of the important characteristic of junior testers in my opinion is their missing fear of asking silly questions to gain more knowledge seniors could overlook easily.

    But I am struggeling with “Stand your ground when you think you are right.”
    Yes and again yes but I would extend it. “Stand your ground when you think you are right – until you are proven to be wrong”. I have seen a lot of testers who thought that they have a lot of business knowledge, telling developers and even customers how their business works. Unfortunately we were about to reorganise everything. The very time consuming discussions were made until the eary-life-phase in producton. After the project we decided to not renew the assignment…

  14. Yabin October 14, 2015 at 7:48 pm #

    Thank you for share us this. I have 3 years working as tester. When I started, i just wanted to work 1 or 2 years as tester and then change as dba or something. I like to work as tester. When i read your letter, I remembered many things and troubles i had. Fortunately my test lead helped me, he taught me many things about testing.
    As you tell us, there are nice Developers.
    Become friend of Developers, they will help you and explain you about technicals concepts in the project.


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